And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.
From “Kathy’s Song” by Paul Simon
Okay, my heart is actually in Roswell, Georgia, or wherever Hubs and my boys happen to be. But I love that song so much, and it was in my head often as I travelled for the last two weeks in a place that I have loved since I first set foot there twenty years ago. [That’s right, Oxford friends. Twenty years. We are officially old.]
This time around, I went to England for a few reasons: first, to do some research for a novel I’m working on that takes place there (Well, sort of. More on that later). Second, I was able to attend a 5-day Arvon course in Romantic Fiction at their beautiful Lumb Bank Center, with two amazing authors as the tutors – Chrissie Manby and Mike Gayle. If you haven’t read a book by either of them, you should. We also had a special guest visit from Jenny Colgan, who was spectacular and fiery and hilarious. And the setting was… well, I’m including some pictures so you can see for yourselves.
Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire is an old mill house, which before it was the Arvon Center was home to poet and author Ted Hughes — a sometimes controversial figure because of his relationship with his late wife Sylvia Plath. I don’t register an opinion about that here, but I can tell you that Sylvia is buried up the road from Lumb Bank in the astonishingly cute village of Heptonstall. It’s tradition to leave a pen in the dirt over her grave when you visit, and I’m hoping she enjoys the obnoxiously loud pink Marriage Pact pen I left for her.
From Lumb Bank, you can walk a few more miles down the hill to the larger village of Hebden Bridge, a wonderful and progressive community that was hit hard by flooding on Boxing Day 2015. Just before our group arrived, the village had just had a “make up Christmas” to celebrate the reopening of many of the town’s stores and to replenish the gifts many Hebden Bridge children lost in the floods.
During my time in Yorkshire, I went with two other writers on an excursion to Haworth and the parsonage home of the Bronte family, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne did most of their writing. The parsonage has been converted into a museum, where you can see, among other things, the actual kitchen table at which both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were written. It’s hard to imagine a piece of furniture with a more profound literary legacy. Shakespeare’s footstool, maybe?
When the writing course ended on Saturday, I had a few days to travel on my own, so I visited the cathedral city of York to meet up with an old friend, who I met (sort of – it’s a long story) when I was backpacking in Wales back in 1998. York is another lovely city with a deep history and countless attractions for the wayward traveler. I found myself just wandering the streets, taking pictures and gaping at things. And also, getting an ice cream at a stall called “Game of Cones.” Winter may be coming, Ned Stark, but England had a heat wave last week and a chocolate scoop hit the spot. And, of course, a few congenial pints at the York Brewery.
The next day I hit the train to the tube to another train to a regional bus to travel aaaaaall the way across England from York to Glastonbury via London. I had a quick stop along the way at Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station to stock up on Harry Potter swag for me. I mean, my family. Totally my family.
In Somerset, Glastonbury is sort of like England’s version of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco: only much, much older. Its landscape in general – and the Chalice Well and Tor (hill) in particular – are considered magical and sacred places to people of more than 72 different faiths around the world, including pagans, druids and many sects of Christianity. It is also a stunningly beautiful place with incredible history and the best people watching since the New York subway.
I took an all-day walking tour there with Tor Webster, whose name really is Tor. So it’s Tor’s Tours of the Tor. No kidding. Tor has lived in Glastonbury nearly all his life, and has been giving tours there for twenty years, so needless to say he knew his stuff. He does day tours of Glastonbury and sacred tours of Scotland and England as well. If you’re going across the pond and want a new perspective on ancient mysteries, I highly recommend him!
I also met some great people at the St. Anne’s B&B there, which is situated in an orchard originally kept by the monks at Glastonbury Abbey for cider apples. Through my open windows at night, I was serenaded by a couple of drinkers at the pub across the street and one very persistent sheep. Glastonbury is sort of a combination of bucolic English countryside, medieval Catholic town with modern amenities, and New Age hippie commune. I found the traditional English tea with scones and clotted cream to be just as lovely as both the greasy fish and chips stand and the vegan buffet around the corner.
After Glastonbury, I bussed back into Bristol and hopped on a train toward London – jumping off for a few hours in Bath, which is one of my favorite English cities. Any fan of Jane Austen needs no further explanation, but Bath is incredibly beautiful in its own right. Fighting off a cold and not enticed by any of the hot, airless historic buildings, I spent my time in Bath mostly outside, wandering around on the hot summer day and revisiting the Royal Crescent and Bath Circus, grabbing a Cornish pasty for the road and doing the *tiniest* bit of shopping in the SouthGate before hopping back on the train to London.
The great thing about London is that you never have enough time to do all you want to do there, so in a weird way the pressure is off. I’ve been to most of the primary tourist attractions on previous trips, so I focused my time on recovering from the cold (sigh), meeting up with a few writer friends, and visiting the Churchill War Rooms — a wonderful museum in Churchill’s underground bunker beneath Her Majesty’s Treasury in Whitehall. It was so good, and having just listened to Citizens of London by Lynne Olson made it all the more meaningful.
Despite my “been there, done that” approach to most of London’s big tourist spots, I found I couldn’t bear to leave town without visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral – long my favorite place in London. I woke up early before I had to leave the hotel for the airport, and hot-footed it down to Fleet Street and the Cathedral, just in time to hear the seven o’clock bells chime. It was too early to go in, but I wandered around the outside to Temple Bar and the Millennium Bridge (the one destroyed by Death Eaters in the opening scene of the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). I caught a black cab back — and had a fantastic conversation with the cabbie about falling down and falling in love, and also his grandkids. I got back to the hotel in time for breakfast, packing up, and hitting the tube to the airport for home.
It was a lovely trip, and as always, I can never leave Britain without wondering when I’ll next have the chance to go back…
Sign up for M.J’s Mailing list & read Late for the Holidays FREE! Sign Me Up!